Making Your Bach Better

July 22, 2016, 3:04 PM · Does playing the music of J.S. Bach make you a better musician? Does it improve your chops as a violinist or violist? Does Bach heal your soul?

That's what I wondered, when I heard the name of this lecture by violist David Rose at the American Viola Society Festival in Oberlin last month: "Bach Makes You Better."

"For me this has been a literal truth," Rose explained. "I believe Bach does make you better, at least in your heart and spirit."

For those who'd like to make their Bach better, Rose had some great ideas, culled from his years of playing and studying Early Music, as well as teaching a course on solo Bach at State University of New York in Fredonia, where he is Associate Professor of Viola. Take, for example, this unique way that he makes a point about "syllables" in Bach:

In other words, the natural adjustments we make to sing well can guide us in creating good bowings for Bach. If it's easiest to sing short syllables in a passage with large intervals, then it might be easiest to use short bows in a similar passage on viola or violin.

David RoseRose had a wonderful way of making profound ideas seem simple and self-evident, using cartoons and illustrations that he'd drawn, straightforward metaphors and memorable phrases. A lot of his ideas are summed up on his website in a document called Survival Guide for Solo Bach. Violists draw on both the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin and on the Six Suites for Cello for their repertoire, and Rose specializes in the performance and interpretation of these unique works that have no accompaniment.

In Bach's time, the traditional lineup for a small Baroque group would typically include basso continuo players (cello, harpsichord) and then a violin and whatever other instruments. In solo Bach, however, "we're kind of a one-person band -- our bass player has been left at the bus stop -- we have to make a complete work when we play solo Bach."

Bach chordDespite the fact that Bach was a practical person who didn't bother with a lot of extraneous writing in his manuscripts for the Sonatas and Partitas and Cello Suites, he did do one thing that was rather fussy: on the very first chord of the first Sonata in G minor for violin, he took the trouble to draw a stem on every single note. Why?

Rose believes it was to convey the sense of the four-part chorale: "All of his music is like a chorale-writing; each string is a different voice."

Bach's requirement to play on so many strings simultaneously, and to keep a sense of multiple voices throughout, is a major challenge for both the brain and the hands. When it comes to the bow, one way to simplify that challenge is to reconsider our concept of the bridge on the violin. Many of us think of the bridge as a kind of hexagon, anchored with two points on the violin and four points overhead -- one point for each string. Operating the bow under this scenario, "we get there with angles, not curves," Rose said.

Rose suggested that it's easier to navigate the strings when thinking of the bridge as the gently-curved object that it is. The upper arm, heavy as it is, is not going to be the most nimble if we ask it to make those big angular motions. "Heavy things don't move quickly, at least with ease," he said. With that in mind, the upper arm should be positioned to hold the bow over the middle strings, then one can use the forearm, wrist and fingers to reach the various strings. Of course, the upper arm will have to have some flexibility from its place in the middle. "You can't just set your wings and fly - you don't pin the arm in place. But it's just not the driving force."

Another difference in Bach -- and in Baroque music -- is the relationship between the up-bow and the down-bow.

"We spend our lives trying to make the up-bow and down-bow indistinguishable from one another, but for Bach, I don't think it's quite right," Rose said. Instead, in Bach, "the up-bow is the shadow of the down-bow," he said. While down-bows gather momentum, up-bows lift beautifully off the string. There are many bariolage passages -- passages that toggle between two strings -- in which the down-bow notes speak the melody and the up-bows are less important.

Chaconne exampleAnother point that Rose made is the fact that musical phrases often run counter to what is written on the page. For example, while Bach beamed notes according to the beat, in reality, they are often grouped differently in performance. One obvious example occurs in Bach's famous "Chaconne" from the Partita in D minor, m. 152-153, shown at left. The top is the way Bach wrote it, but the bottom is a way of phrasing it that displaces that grouping by one note. "If you start looking for different ways to group the notes, you'll start seeing these things everywhere," Rose said.

Rose also presented a different way of thinking about trills. He pointed out that keyboard players of the Baroque era had to know more than a dozen symbols that represented different types of very specific trills. Here is a sampling:

trill symbols

By contrast, string players tend to be less versed in the subtleties of trills. "The moment we see the trill, we just kind of rev our fingers," Rose said. Instead of trusting us with these symbols, Bach wrote out a lot of our trills, but we still need to be aware of the context in which they take place. Trills "have friends on both sides," Rose said. They must fit holistically into the music, and they are meant to connect to the notes before and after them.

And a word about the period-performance notion that every slur should decay like a sigh: yes, but with context. A slur is typically heavier on the front end, but it doesn't just disappear. Rather, using the words of Baroque cellist Anner Bylsma, it should "melt," and depending on the circumstances, it should melt to varying degrees.

* * *

BELOW: Here is David Rose playing Bach -- and what a gorgeous viola sound. Here he plays the Prelude from Bach's Suite in D minor, BWV 1008, originally for cello:

(If you totally loved that, as I did, check out this recording of Bach Suite No. 4, recorded from a cell phone, but quite riveting.)

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July 22, 2016 at 11:13 PM · Great article!

July 22, 2016 at 11:23 PM · What a gorgeous sound! Can you tell us anything about his instrument? It looks a little unusual.

July 24, 2016 at 04:21 AM · About David's viola, I asked him, and here is what he said:

"The viola is made by Alan Balmforth - a maker near Seattle. The design itself is a model by my former teacher, Gerald Stanick. This viola was made in 1996, and has been a faithful friend to me since then."

July 28, 2016 at 11:42 PM · I was very fortunate to learn under David Rose! My Bach was the most beautiful part of my recital thanks to his knowledge and expertise! Now I find myself introducing Bach early to my students and they have also fostered a love for his music!

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